The guide spurred his horse forward: “Let’s Ride!...And try not to let any big pussy cats spook the horses.” There’s nothing as thrilling as galloping through the African bushveld and, as I felt my horse surge underneath me and the wicked acacia thorns began to whip past my thighs, I gratefully delegated all responsibility for our welfare to my faithful steed. If either of us was in danger of getting ‘spooked’ it wasn’t Strider.
We had travelled like this for much of the morning - whenever the rocky savanna and network of gullies allowed - once covering three miles in a few breathless minutes. But this time the trailmaster called us to a sliding halt and, even as I reined in, I was squinting into the sunlight ahead to see what the hold-up was. Then I made out the bulky shadows of a group of elephants ransacking the mopane trees and I realised with a shock that I could have ridden straight into that wall of grey flesh and curving ivory before I had noticed anything. I was suddenly aware of how effectively the world’s largest land animal can hide itself!
But I already knew that this remote corner of Botswana was capable of ‘hiding’ the largest elephant population on private land anywhere in the world. From an open-topped Landcruiser I had already counted ninety-five animals in a single huge herd...and I knew that many more youngsters would have been hidden from view in the long grass as they followed the matriarchs towards the sunset. They were a remnant of the great herds that once roamed the Limpopo Valley and they have earned Mashatu Game Reserve the title of ‘Land of the Giants.’
But as we held our horses in line and watched the group that was shredding the mopane branches, we were yet to realise that our path was blocked by of one of the region’s largest herds! This isolated part of Botswana, known historically as the Tuli Enclave, has remained almost unchanged since the pioneer columns blazed its trails in the late 1800s. As we had saddled up for our four-day ‘patrol,’ at the Fort Jameson stables of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, I felt like a raw recruit preparing for a Boer war skirmish.
Our trailmaster, Steve Rufus, was a qualified ranger and riding-instructor and an experienced bushman. Steve’s love of horses came from a childhood spent on a ranch in the Zimbabwe bushveld and eight years lecturing on equine studies at Pretoria. A tour of duty during the ‘bush war’ and a reputation as a champion three-day event rider suggest that Steve would have been a match for all but the most hard-bitten Fort Tuli trooper. On our first morning we rode eastwards across the rocky savanna among herds of zebra, wildebeest and impala before turning south to follow the Pitsani (Little Zebra) River. The ruins of Bryce’s Store, where one of the more decisive shoot-outs took place, and the Boer gun-emplacements on nearby Commando Kopje helped to enhance the feeling of timelessness that is the essence of horseback travel.
Just as the heat (and our, as yet unaccustomed, rumps) were becoming uncomfortable we rode into the Pitsani camp where Steve’s assistants, Joyce and Sam, had already unloaded the back-up vehicle of fresh local produce and eskies of G&T - without which no safari would be worthy of the name. Full of delicious bush pizza (and a ration of ‘Tom Collins’ that would have done Hemingway justice) I slept soundly...until, just before dawn, I was jolted awake by the cough of a prowling lion. He seemed to be in the bushes on the other side of the stream and for a while it seemed that we could almost hear him breathing. The horses stamped and pulled nervously on the pony-line.
But we couldn’t let him interrupt Joyce’s fresh-baked blueberry muffins and the sun had already dried the morning dew when we saddled up and headed in the opposite direction. Though the lion remained hidden the day’s ride was unforgettable for other sightings: three hundred impala ‘pronking’ in the early sunlight – warming up for another day on the run; a herd of giraffe lolloping away on willowy legs; warthog piglets scampering, squeaking, with tails held stiff and high - like little dodgem cars; kudu; ostrich; jackal; monkey; bushpig; hyena; baboon...
Even amongst these ‘everyday’ Mashatu sightings there were highlights. As we spread out to canter across the savanna a herd of wildebeest - duped by their own instinct for safety-in-numbers - galloped down to join our ‘stampede’! They would stay alongside us as long as we made no noises or movements that distinguished us from our horses. Once we were also joined by a bachelor herd of eland bulls and, when we were forced to return for one of our fallen comrades (whose horse had posted him through an unfeasibly small gap in a battered acacia tree), they looked back, as if to say: “why’ve we stopped?!”
Then there was that daunting elephant blockade. In an effort to find a safe thoroughfare through the herd we trotted cautiously along a dry riverbed but the horses’ constantly twitching ears alerted us to elephants feeding beyond the ledge above our heads. Steve scouted ahead and, just as he approached a gully that intersected our track, a young bull came charging down, pumping his tree-trunk legs to gain the momentum that would push his impressive bulk back up the opposite bank. Our horses spun around, whinnying - anxious for flight.
The enthusiasm with which Strider tackled the near-vertical walls of these gullies was a testament to the bumper-sticker on the back of Steve’s saddles: ‘Best 4x4xfar!’ I knew that he could outrun an elephant...but I wasn’t too confident about my chances of still being with him when he’d done it. So, for once I refused to defer to Strider’s experience and, hearts pounding, we continued up the riverbed. By the time we arrived, two nerve-racking hours later, on the other side of that pachyderm minefield I was ready to concede that a horse-safari in ‘The Land of the Giants’ is not for the novice rider...but, then again, six prancing horses and a charging bull elephant in a dry riverbed does make for a pretty steep learning-curve!